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A freer Russia for whom?

On the death of Alexei Navalny, the little tsar that could


Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Photo by Michał Siergiejevicz/Wikimedia Commons.

Alexei Navalny looks directly into the camera. He has a remarkably expressive face, and presently it is expressing concern, skepticism, and discomfort. Director Daniel Roher is in the process of telling him he is about to ask a question that Navalny will probably hate, and something the director had apparently been asking him about earlier: “If you are killed… what message do you leave behind to the Russian people?” Navalny is clearly disturbed by the question but nonetheless musters a smile. “No way,” he says, “it’s like you’re making the case for my death.”

So begins 2022’s Academy-Award-winning documentary Navalny (produced by CNN), its subject’s own preemptive, fawning obituary. Punctuated by shots of enthusiastic rallies and Western media soundbites, the documentary will have you believe that the Russian people are languishing under Putin’s iron fist, pining for Navalny and the freedom he offers. The reality of Russian politics, however, is complex and no more reducible to a simplistic Manichean struggle between good and evil—autocracy versus liberalism—than the Voldemort versus Harry Potter analogy Navalny offered at his own trial. It may be easy to dismiss such a claim as merely a Putin-produced illusion of the “Real Russia” dispensed through his state media apparatuses, but it’s a truth we can find at times even in outlets with a vested interest in portraying Navalny, who died suddenly in an Arctic penal colony last week, as a “democratic” opponent to Putin, such as NPR.

Take this episode of This American Life from 2017, for example, where Ira Glass and his usual team of neurotic hand-wringers seek to investigate Russian opinions on the Putin government, with exchanges such as this one in which Glass sceptically asks Moscow correspondent Charles Maynes about the veracity of polls claiming support for the president to be over 80 percent:

Ira Glass: Charles, is that number real?
Charles Maynes: Well, it is real. These are real polls, where large numbers of real people really do answer questions. Russia has two big polling firms that are essentially state-sponsored and one that’s independent. And all three of these get basically the same numbers. This month, Putin dropped by two percent to 82 percent. And American pollsters like Gallup and Pew, they also get the same results.
Ira Glass: In the 80s?
Charles Maynes: Yeah, in the 80s.
Ira Glass: But are people just saying that they like Putin because they are scared to say anything else?
Charles Maynes: Well, that’s part of it, especially with older people. There was a poll done by this Levada Center—this is the independent pollster in Russia—saying that 26 percent of all respondents said they’re afraid to share their views of the government with pollsters. So that probably inflates the number, but just how much isn’t really clear.
Ira Glass: So if 82 percent isn’t the right number, do we have any sense of what a more accurate measure of his popularity might be?
Charles Maynes: Some pollsters say it’s the so-called electoral rating. This is when you ask Russians who they’d actually vote for. Like the Levada Center has this poll they do where they say, if the presidential elections were held next Sunday, who would you vote for? And then only 55 percent say they’d vote for Putin. And that’s, again, the independent pollsters. The state one has a figure that’s a little higher—64 percent—but that’s hardly the 82 percent, 84 percent that we’ve seen.
Ira Glass: So what I get from this is, take the 82 percent, 84 percent approval rating with a grain of salt, but it is true that most people approve of him?
Charles Maynes: Yeah. He’s still really popular.

We see this tactic in the West again and again. We are told that the citizenry of rival or ‘adversary’ nations “want” the pretenders we so often hold up; they “want” to get rid of their “despotic” governments; they “want” us, effectively, to intervene and free them. Russia “wanted” Navalny just like Venezuela “wanted” Juan Guaidó, and just like Libya, Syria, and Iraq “wanted” whatever nebulous thing it was that we were offering. Every piece of anecdotal evidence in favour of these “desires” is irrefutable gospel (“You know, my cousin’s friend actually lives in Cuba, and she says—”) and any evidence to the contrary is merely the result of coercion (“Well of course millions of Cubans took to the streets in support of Castro, they probably feared for their lives were they to not!”). The fulfillment of these “desires,” however, never seems to pan out the way such uncomplicated “desires” would suggest they would. Rather, it seems that history reveals a great many people who lived under “despotic” regimes and yet who entirely resented any attempts that we (that is, the West) made to “liberate” them. Yes, of course “liberating” Iraq was a mistake; but trust us, Russia, Iran, and North Korea? These ones are different. They really want it this time.

One particular source of Putin’s popularity pokes a glaring hole in the myth of Russia’s supposed longing for a saviour like Navalny. To many Russians, Putin is seen as standing up to the West, tapping into an implacable anti-Western disposition held by many Russians, and he poses a stark contrast to the fawning adoration bestowed upon Navalny across much of the Western world. Sure, Navalny positioned himself as an “anti-corruption” figure, but of course people forget that that’s exactly the stance Putin pantomimed early in his own career, waging a “war against the oligarchs” which namely meant replacing the previous oligarchs with ones loyal to himself. It’s hard not to see Navalny having taken the same route, especially considering that Navalny had his own oligarchical backers, such as the exiled Mikhail Khodorkovsky, formerly Russia’s richest man and one-time Yeltsin string-puller, who just the other day eulogized Navalny in a tweet. It seems odd that Western liberals would be so guileless about this considering their own greatest boogeyman, Trump, used the very same obviously disingenuous tactic when he promised to “drain the swamp” back in 2016. Putin also presided over Russia’s great twenty-first century economic miracle, rapidly turning Russia into a more prosperous nation after years of poverty under Yeltsin.

Navalny’s other political positions tend to fade into the background in the West as they cannot be reconciled with the image we were so often sold, but they are a lot more odious. Navalny was a reactionary nationalist who was not afraid to publicly refer to Muslims as “cockroaches” and Georgians as “rodents.” Aside from the assumption that he would take on a more Western-friendly position, his foreign policy was not all that different from Putin’s, considering he supported the invasions of both Georgia and Crimea, positions he would at times opportunistically recant or sometimes just deny he had ever endorsed. In one interview, Navalny balks at the suggestion that he could be an ethnonationalist, citing his involvement with Democratic Alternative, a supposedly liberal youth group that he founded. Does being involved with Democratic Alternative somehow simultaneously make Navalny not a racist? Probably not, but when one considers that Democratic Alternative is also an organization that was suppressing the fact that it receives funding from the National Endowment for Democracy, the infamous quasi-CIA regime change outfit, it might at the very least suggest you could be some other not so great things, and that maybe there are several different reasons Russians ought not to trust you.

As Maynes tells Glass about older Russians, “they’ve gone through so many different modes of being in the last 30 years… they’re kind of left with the feeling that everything is a masquerade.” On Navalny, a Russian asks Maynes, “What does he really stand for? What is he really offering or suggesting other than just getting rid of the country’s leaders?” This cynicism is mirrored in the statements collected by Nobel Prize winning journalist Svetlana Alexievich, another figure beloved by a certain class of people, in her oral history of modern Russia, Secondhand Time. To quote one subject: “This ‘snow’ revolution hasn’t produced any heroes. Where’s their platform? What are they going to do? They’ll come out to the streets and shout… and then that same Nemtsov or Navalny will tweet about how they’re on vacation in the Maldives or Thailand. That they’re enjoying Paris. Imagine Lenin going on a jaunt to Italy or skiing in the Alps after a demonstration.” Another Russian aptly opines: “So what if Putin leaves? Some new autocrat will come take the throne in his place.”

There’s an obviously strong likelihood that Navalny was murdered—his ongoing opposition to Russia’s activities in Ukraine as well as Russia’s growing isolation from a swiftly-crumbling “unified” international community being among many likely factors—though whether this is indeed a “blow to democratic freedom” is a loaded question to ask. When we talk about “freedom” in Russia in this way we have to ask ourselves: freedom for whom?

The Ukraine war, a conflict driven by the deliberate provocation of the United States and costing countless lives, has had the consent-manufacturing engines in the West roaring in full force to drum up antagonism towards everything Russian. CNN’s decision to produce a documentary on Navalny against that backdrop, indeed all the press that Navalny received, was transparently an extension of that—the same sort of hagiographic propaganda that is likewise trotted out about Volodymyr Zelensky. Indeed, Navalny was a perfect parallel for the Ukrainian president: two fragments in America’s mosaic of faux-liberal shadow governments; nearly-identical in their media profiles, two “brave” heroes of Western-styled liberalism, bold reformers, fierce enemies of corruption, with those sad eyes and determined expressions built to grace the front covers of Time magazine while receiving their lunch money from the State Department. I suppose the primary distinction is that Navalny was an actual racist, whereas Zelenskyy merely gives people like that anti-tank weapons.

Navalny was a spent political force in Russia. Over time his greatest utility, certainly after the outbreak of the war in the Ukraine, was his Western appeal as a hand-selected and groomed posterchild for America’s Russian Dream. Putin’s dire miscalculation, were the order really to have come from him, would be in misunderstanding that Navalny is at this point more useful dead than alive to Russia’s geopolitical enemies. Dead heroes, as anyone familiar with the mysterious ellipses that find their way into Martin Luther King Jr. quotes on his annual holiday has surely seen, always say and do the right things for those who wish to utilize them. And when the death of those heroes is so intricately tied into what you would like them to do or say, you’ve got an even sweeter deal, and you don’t even have to pay them anymore!

Roher’s documentary gave the game away seconds into its own run-time when the director asked his subject, with barely-contained glee, to imagine a life after his own inevitable assassination—that’s how enthusiastic and impatient Western leaders were to make a martyr out of the man.

If I was in Pussy Riot I’d be sleeping with the lights on.

Jack Daniel Christie is a writer, artist, and law student of Anishinaabe descent, splitting his time between Toronto and Montréal. His poetry has appeared in Soliloquies, Headlight Anthology, and Bad Nudes.


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